‘If you lament each day, you can be sure that your children will not follow in your footsteps’

Leonardo Capitanio is the newly appointed President of the International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH). At 33, he is the youngest AIPH President to take on this role to continue the work as a thought leader that inspires and educates, stimulates increased demand for ornamentals worldwide, and protects and promotes interest in global ornamental horticulture.

No one can doubt Capitanio’s commitment. He recently stepped down from his role as President of the Italian Nursery Stock Exporters Association (ANVE) before taking on the part of President of AIPH. He tells us he is happiest working with his family alongside the trees and plants in his nursery, Vivai Capitanio.

Capitanio was born in Monopoli in the southern heel of Italy, where most people are employed in agriculture, wholesale and retail trade or become fishermen.

It’s one of the region’s agricultural heartlands, well-suited to the production of seeds, olives, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and to a lesser extent, ornamentals which are more considered a niche crop.

Generations of farmers in his family have worked the land where Capitanio now resides, with century-old olive groves surrounding his family home. Growing up here, he has fond memories of playing with the children next door while their parents worked with his father.

He also remembers earning pocket money as a child by emptying the pots with dead seedlings and by selling seed-raised Acacia pudica. The young Capitanio recalls being fascinated by the leaves of these ‘sensitive plants’ that move when touched.

Many generations of farmers in his family have worked the land where Capitanio now resides.

FloraCulture International: “What does agriculture mean for you?”

Leonardo Capitanio: “I was born the son of a farmer, so I have deep roots in agriculture. I am keenly interested in its history and origins, its evolution, and what the agricultural future holds. I like the social fabric of rural communities with traditional farming based on frugality, family values, generation-old knowledge, culture, and labour-intensive work. And how traditional farming relates to urban farming, which has completely different dynamics.

My father Stefano Capitanio began with 14 cows. He inherited them from my grandad. He was a visionary. He quickly understood that dairy farming had little future under the newly introduced milk quota in the 1980s. He sold off the cattle and tried his luck in growing mushrooms, beekeeping and snail farming. He finally found his calling in nursery stock. That’s how he started his journey through relentless curiosity, an urge to innovate and an ambition to bring something different to the marketplace.”

In May 2008, your father sadly died from a heart attack while potting plants in the nursery, aged 47. What is the number one life lesson you learnt from him?

“Respect for others and being able to work with others are essential. Today’s scholars study the human factor in entrepreneurship from books, courses, teambuilding, and networking events. However, my dad was naturally an entrepreneur, always busy building an effective network, the legacy of which allows me to progress professionally today. My father was my teacher. He taught me to always listen to others carefully, the employees in particular. My brother Simone and I are lucky to be surrounded by a loyal team passionate about what the company does.

Taking on the responsibility of my father’s business, I quickly found that some people are quick to judge, criticise and attack. Envy is human, inevitable and comes easy. It has taught me that not everything in life is beautiful and that the world is made up of good and bad people.

Upon my appointment as the new president of AIPH, I thanked my ‘enemies’ because they allowed me to test my limits, break through the challenges and improve. I find an enemy motivates you to maximise your skills.

Returning to the initial question, setting boundaries between personal life and work is also important as my dad taught me not to forget to enjoy life.”

Family businesses form the backbone of ornamental horticulture. What is your best advice on working with relatives?

“When I talk about family members, I mean also my colleagues because I see them all as my brothers and sisters. To run a successful family business, it is vital to set clear roles and align these with a person’s skills and personal wishes. My mother, Giovanna, for example, is the anchor and backbone of the company, but in the beginning, she made it clear she did not want to be involved in the daily running of the business. My brother Simone is the company’s production manager and is good at focusing on the technical aspects of growing plants. Then there’s my little sister Delia; at 18, she is still studying.
I believe the success of a family business boils down to respect, patience, and connection. At Capitanio, we are united in our passion for the plants we grow.”

How are the government’s sustainability policies impacting our industry? Are there concerns about future planning and growth?

“I am not a fan of complaining. At the same time, I am aware that family businesses are the backbone of our industry, and this brings certain limits. In good years, revenues may be somewhat lower than in the corporate world because over-regulation is hampering business growth. But family businesses tend to carry lower debt and have a greater financial stability. Metaphorically speaking, losing one euro can be a struggle for a corporate firm where directors must craft a strategy to keep the firm going and retain and pay staff. In family businesses, through tough times, the family members stick together and are more willing to contribute to keeping the business afloat by also working Saturdays and Sundays, for example. Fortunately, our sector is formed by many family businesses, and we are lucky to have some big players among us who drive innovation and create long-term perspectives.

Regarding an ever-increasing distance between government and business, I am not that preoccupied. These are obstacles to overcome. One of the roles of industry associations is to bring government and industry closer while never forgetting that the bottom line is to improve the members’ competitive position. But it may well be that we talk too much about sustainability and ecology. Please understand me: I am convinced that each of us must do our utmost to reduce our ecological footprint. As an industry, there’s certainly room for improvement, but we must not forget that, in most cases, we are not the cause but the remedy. We grow the magnets for pollinators, and our trees and plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Moreover, in talks with the government, it is vital to stress that you cannot instantly grow three billion plants and trees. Realistically, our work requires careful, often year-long planning. Governments need to understand better that building a green infrastructure requires expertise, time, planning and crop times.

Unfortunately, many family businesses are disappearing because there’s no succession plan. The younger generations do not believe this sector has a future. I am young, so I can say that if my generation does not believe in this sector, it’s probably caused by adults who complain too much. If you lament each day, you can be sure that your children will not follow in your footsteps. As a sector, we must enforce ourselves to stress the beautiful things in both externally managed and family companies.”

Capitanio says, “When I talk about family members, I mean also my colleagues because I see them all as my brothers and sisters.”

What are the biggest challenges our industry is facing right now?

“I would say rising energy costs and plant health. The cost of energy will affect our daily habits. Perhaps, we need to recalibrate and move towards more climate-proof, less energy-intensive crops. By growing flowers and plants suited to the geographical location we are in. For example, our nursery in Southern Italy grows heat-loving, drought-resistant plants. Friends and industry from across Italy frequently complain that they experience the driest summer ever and that rivers and canals are drying up. I always respond that from our nursery, the first river or lake is as far away as 250km and that we are used to running our operation without a river. Not because we are better but because we grow what nature allows us to grow. It is evident that high-tech greenhouses allow us to produce anything, but perhaps it is worth considering the roadmap ahead.

Is growing cut flowers or tropical plants in a greenhouse a good choice? Maybe yes, but maybe grow seasonal crops or introduce crop rotation. I do not mean that growing Phalaenopsis in Dutch greenhouses is wrong. But it may well be that for some companies, the current circumstances no longer make this a viable option, and this marks the moment to turn to crops more suited to the climate of Western Europe. And if tomorrow we have found better, cheaper, and more efficient ways to heat our greenhouses, we can switch back to the crops we have been growing up until now. The energy debate coincides with the market’s cyclical fluctuations of supply and prices. We owe much to the horticultural pioneers who paved the way for year-round greenhouse production of Phalaenopsis in Holland, as it gave our industry an enormous boost. In this transitional phase, some businesses will disappear, many hortipreneurs will fall and hurt themselves, while for others, it will open doors. It is important to go with the flow.”

Let’s touch on sustainability, the theme that goes hand in hand with climate change. Your father was an ‘imprenditore all’avanguardia’, an entrepreneur at the forefront: a few months before his death, he proudly opened the Lama degli Ulivi garden at the company’s headquarters in Monopoli, a living product showcase of Vivai Capitanio’s product range but also a treasure trove of biodiversity. Why do you think sustainability should be at the core of every horticultural business?

“Sustainability is a business imperative for all companies because it simply wouldn’t make sense to pride ourselves on our climate change, carbon storage heroes if these trees were not grown sustainably.

Sustainable practices encourage research and development because they are constantly improving. However, we as an industry must force ourselves to communicate our green credentials better. I have witnessed too many unpleasant debates between citizens and nursery stock growers. Today’s citizens are deeply concerned about virtually anything administered to a plant. They are often unaware that the new generation of crop protection products we use are non-toxic biostimulants or bio fungicides. The big fear needs to be reined in. Blaming the farmer for being too little informed and unorganised is too easy. This is used as an alibi which is no good and must be combatted.

If you dive deeper, the polluting perpetrators are the chemical industry that illegally dumps waste upstream. Nursery stock growers do things better than others, but these values are not apparent to outsiders because of their poor organisational structure. No one understands better than a farmer how to protect his environment because he makes a living from working on the land.

Of course, negative cases exist, but most growers know how to care for the environment perfectly. For example, I live in the middle of my nursery where my children are growing up. I would never do anything that could harm them.”

Each year, fewer pesticide options are available for the grower, and the regulations are getting stricter. And each year, new plant pests and diseases start to emerge. You have witnessed with your own eyes how Xylella decimated olive groves in Puglia. It’s a devil of a dilemma; how do you choose between best-protecting plant health while facilitating commercial global trade?

“There is no solution yet. The nursery stock sector is trying to survive using the products that are still allowed. But we are also selling our trees and plants around the world in the absence of a clear set of rules. We trade globally but decide on the admission of plant health products locally, which is wrong.

Trading globally needs global regulations. We cannot work with a few lateral agreements between countries. If we wish to move plants freely around the world, we need a set of standard rules, and we need to push governments in the right direction. We, as a growers’ association, cannot resolve the issue, but we can convince governments about the necessity to work on it.

In Puglia, we agreed on moving plants around the world, but we were ill-prepared for emergencies, which was our region’s fault. But any other region in the world incurs the same risk. You need a safety helmet if you drive your car at 300km/hour. If we would like to continue exporting plants fast around the world, we also need a security belt. Because we cannot allow pests such as Xylella to invade our fields, to do this, supranational knowledge is required, not just relying on political will.”

Capitanio: “The biggest fault of Calimero is that he never stops complaining and thinks himself ugly. As a sector, we need to constantly highlight the gross value added we contribute to the world economy and by doing so, we will not walk away empty-handed.”

Plant health has its roots in science; what can we do to attract funding for research topics that support biodiversity and sustainability?

“As these topics need broad public support and understanding, raising awareness on a healthy agricultural system approach to making farming both profitable and sustainable is crucial. A well-informed public is more likely to translate into political action. In the discussion sustainability and biodiversity are much more present. With its Green Deal and Biodiversity Strategy 2030, the EU underlines the importance of protecting and restoring biodiversity, hopefully making it easier to attract funding.”

Despite its global production value amounting to approximately $90 billion and an estimated global retail market value of $225 billion we sometimes think our industry is small. Does global ornamental horticulture suffer from a Calimero Complex, feeling underestimated because of its small size?

“The biggest fault of Calimero is that he never stops complaining and thinks himself ugly. As a sector, we need to constantly highlight the gross value added we contribute to the world economy, and by doing so, we will not walk away empty-handed. During my stint as ANVE president, I have witnessed how our sector is increasingly winning attention. Ten years ago, hardly anyone talked about ornamental horticulture, but now even the big agricultural trade associations are interested in our industry because we always try to be present in conferences, events, and political debates. Advocacy and lobbying are essential. And there is nothing wrong with those who prefer to stay behind in the field, but they must support the voice of their industry. Apart from investing in a new potting machine or greenhouse technology, horticultural entrepreneurs also need to invest in their trade associations because, in the long run, it will lead to huge benefits and money in their pockets.”

What is the biggest lesson learnt from the Xylella crisis in Puglia?

“Undoubtedly, the benefit of making greater use of dialogue. As any other entrepreneur, I like to operate in a liberal, free-market society. Still, we will need legislative intervention, to facilitate the debate and inform the public, governments, and regional policymakers about the risks. Our street protests worked and helped others to understand the issue. In the beginning, people believed that a plant disease would not spread very quickly, let alone consider that Xylella could affect the value of a real estate or the tourist and hospitality industry in Puglia. Now we know that if something hurts agriculture, the entire tissue of society is affected.”

It is safe to see that sector-wide the future challenges are the same. From this, one would think of ornamental horticulture as one big global family uniting cut flowers, houseplants, nursery stock, bulbs, and garden plants. Do you feel AIPH’s voice for the industry is as strong for every segment?

“To date, we are pretty strong in advocating across all industry segments as we spend much time on quality communication. Consistent, focused communication enables us to drive change in the realm of world horticultural expos, plant health, plant breeders’ rights, flower auctions and the Green City initiative. You cannot achieve greatness in all fields. Sometimes you need to push harder on one side to obtain better results on the others; they all move forwards positively with communication being the motor.”

Vivai Capitanio grows a wide range of Mediterranean plants, such as Bougainvillea.

There are Green City initiatives: Green Cities Europe and Global Green Cities. Why do they not join forces?

“That’s a very political question. They both exist with different spheres of influence. You cannot simply replicate the European Green City approach in Asia. Different continents need other narratives, objectives, and ways of acting differently. However, it can only be positive if we can get both sides to the table to build a solid foundation. And there’s nothing wrong with using different pillars to build the organisation structure because each pillar can focus on its field of expertise. Ultimately, it’s all about the people. Until now we haven’t been able to unite, but I will continue to try to bring both entities together respecting both ideas, spirits, and values. But it is not enough that I want to unite them, it takes two to make a marriage work.”

AIPH’s tagline is ‘the world’s champion for the power of plants’, primarily focusing on championing the horticultural producers. How important is it to forge relationships with other industry associations? I can see synergies with Union Fleurs, for example. Am I right?

“There is nothing that impedes us from collaborating more closely together. The reality is that AIPH and Union Fleurs come from different backgrounds and origins. Maybe the fear is that by joining forces you automatically lose something. I come from Italy’s deep south where there’s historically a deep divide between companies. However, over the past few years, we have reunited 80 per cent of the businesses under ANVE. Perhaps, what’s needed most is the right momentum. Usually, it is easier to unite when an industry passes through testing times.”

The eventful year 2022 lies behind with different horticultural expos taking place worldwide. How do you look back on what is arguably the most contested Floriade?

“I think it was a fantastic event, full of content, truly beautiful and a rewarding day out for consumers and professionals alike. After any major event, you need time to settle and reflect. I think there will be a realisation that Almere actually ended up with an extraordinary legacy of a site that will make a good new housing area for the city. I think they need to approach horticultural expos realistically. Sometimes you can be over-optimistic because you initially set the targets in an unrealistic way. In a city such as Almere that has just had a Floriade, you will know the benefits that come to that city as a result. If you only look at the financial outcome, you will never get the whole story and will not realise the full, long-lasting benefit of an event like this. On some metrics, you can say it is a failure, but over a longer period, I think the city of Almere will be pleased that it held the Floriade last year. Regarding budgeting based on realistic visitation numbers, there is no magic number. In some parts of the world, this would be a very small number; in other parts, a good number. The key is to try to budget for what you would achieve and then go for that.

The Netherlands is different to many other expos hosts. It aims to cover its costs and bring back income through ticketing and other commercial ventures. Other expos host cities around the world and see it as an investment in their city, and hosting provides the city with reputational recognition globally. There is less concern about income which should be the concern of how governments are structured in different parts of the world. In this region, they just need to rethink the model of what they want from Floriade. What I don’t see here is the genuine involvement of the national government. Let’s not forget that an A1 Category Expo is a world expo that diplomats from other countries are invited. Sometimes it feels more of an opportunity for the government to use this as a platform for themselves. In some ways, they have forgotten how precious a chance they have in their hands when they are approved to host an A1 horticultural expo.”

At a glance

Vivai Capitanio offer a wide assortment of Mediterranean plants and plants from Mediterranean climate areas (South Australia, South Africa, And Central America)
+70 Ha
Open Fields + Greenhouses
Handled Plants Per Day
4,5 Ml
Cultivated Plants Annually
Produced Species
Processed CC Trolleys Per Year

This article first featured in FloraCulture International January 2023.

↑ Back to top